Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.

About Money. About Getting Paid. About Expectations.

For today’s Money Monday post, I would like to share about some of the financial things that I deal with working for ADEC. I consider myself to be a fair-minded individual, and that’s the perspective I intend to write this from. Too often I see folks complaining about the way things are here, and I soon start to call their judgment about those things into question, because I usually find those people are the ones who have made no allowances for living and working in a foreign land.

When I was researching job prospects in the UAE, I spent time on websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe and many others, and that was a good way to determine what schools an organizations played fair with their employees. Of course, I tempered my reading with knowledge that people who get themselves in trouble out of their own idiocy are often to be the loudest Internet complainers.  So I’d like to address the issue of pay (not the rate as much as other aspects) in a level-headed fashion, because it’s the kind of thing I’d have liked for someone to elaborate upon when I was job-hunting and when I was trying to figure out what to expect.

So I’m going to talk about what it’s like to be receiving pay from an Emirati organization. First, let me address expectations: I was told that ADEC gives annual raises, and having that expectation in mind, I was disappointed to see that it’s not in my contract. My grade level coordinator has an older contract from a year before I came, and the wording of his contract is different–he is promised the raise. But he hasn’t ever gotten it, since one of the Sheikhs issued a decree last year freezing all pay. So that expectation was quashed. Another expectation has to do with timely pay for the first major payment into our bank accounts–our housing allowance, with which we purchase necessities like furniture for the empty apartments we’re provided.  This allowance didn’t arrive until the end of August, meaning that I spent nearly a month in Abu Dhabi without the means to purchase any of the things I would be needing very soon.  When the money arrived, I scrambled to get all the stuff I needed.  But then, before I’d managed to get any bedroom furniture, ADEC moved me from the Intercontinental to the crappy Hilton in Al Ain, where I had one day off before being shuttled to various orientations.  At the Hilton, we were told upon arrival that we’d be given up to two weeks to get our housing all squared away, and then that was suddenly changed after four days, when it was unceremoniously announced, via a slip of paper under the door, that all ADEC teachers were expected to check out the next morning.  The wife and I spent the next night at a friend’s apartment, and then slept on our own couches, before a friend lent us mattresses to throw on the floor until we got our bedroom furniture from Ikea.  So the expectation to receive the initial housing allowance in a timely manner was quashed.  I’m not sharing these experiences because I’m bitter, but because it’s the way things happened.

ADEC pays teachers on the 25th of each month.  After the initial month’s pay didn’t arrive, I had to wait until September to finally be paid.  At the end of September, I’d been without a paycheck for quite some time.  ADEC did pay me, on September 25, a prorated salary for August, and they paid me my regular amount for September, so that paycheck (or direct deposit, actually) was pretty large.

ADEC provides tickets to get teachers from their country of origin to the UAE.  Until today, the only complications in this area were due to different expectations–we were told that I would be issued a ticket and that the wife would have to follow me at a later date, and that we should plan accordingly.  If you’ve read our old posts, you know this isn’t what happened at all.  At the end of July, ADEC’s travel agency sent an e-mail verifying our travel information, and then they sent an itinerary for both of us to fly at the same time.  Plans were already made, and unable to alter them, we contacted the travel agency and had them issue only one ticket.  After waiting a month to get my passport with work visa back, we gave up waiting and bought our own ticket for her to come join me.  That resulted in a few complications, but nothing difficult to deal with.  ADEC reimbursed us fully for her airfare.  Today there is a new complication, however.  Rather than buying tickets for all teachers to go home during the summer months, ADEC provides funds for you to purchase your own tickets.  This amount is supposed to vary based upon your location, of course, but they have always been generous and provided plenty of money for folks to buy tickets on nice airlines like Emirates or Etihad.  This year there seems to have been some kind of goof–some of us, including yours truly, aren’t receiving anywhere near enough money to cover our flights.  I say it’s a goof because word is that ADEC honestly messed up–“a clerical error,” some say, resulting in wild variances and discrepancies.  At any rate, the allowance to go home generally seems to be substantially less than it has been.  As I write, I still have hope that this will be corrected, because I’m scheduled to receive, for my family, a mere 9450 AED, or about $2,600, and at the moment the cheapest flights (not even ones via Emirates or Etihad) to Atlanta are showing up at $1,800 a piece via SkyScanner.  This is disconcerting for obvious reasons.  We’ll see if ADEC fixes this.  If not, there will be much justifiable anger.

And what about sick days?  Are we paid for them?  Yes, as long as we go to a doctor and get a certain form rubber stamped and then submit that to our school’s secretary and to ADEC itself, via their clumsy and unintuitive webpage (hey, that’s true, not bitter or angry).  I had an issue pop up when they tried to deny me pay for one of my three sick days I took over the course of the year.  It turned out I needed to go get a stamp that was missing applied to my doctor’s note.  That was a bit of a pain in the neck, but after re-uploading my form with the required stamp, I was all set.

Another thing that impacts some people’s wallets comes in the form of what people are told when they interview for the job.  Besides not receiving the annual raise, teachers who come in the summer having just completed their degrees (I’m speaking of Master’s or higher), will end up only receiving the pay for the degree they had before.  My friend and coworker, who shall remain here unnamed, finished up with his Master’s degree in Education after he interviewed for his position in the spring.  “Don’t worry,” they said, “You’ll get paid on the Master’s pay scale.  All you will have to do is turn in the authenticated copy of your degree and we will make sure you’re paid accordingly, since you’ll have had the degree prior to actually working for us.”  That hasn’t happened.  In fact, after much hassling to make sure he had everything done right, and after being congratulated for an upcoming pay raise by a woman in the Al Ain ADEC office, he received an e-mail from the lady in charge of OK’ing stuff.  What did it say?  All pay raises were frozen as a result of the decree I mentioned earlier.  This defies logic, you say!  Yes, I agree.  You’re getting the idea of what it’s like to live and work in the UAE.

So that more or less sums up my experience with the topic of being paid.  Although I was late being paid my housing allowance, I’ve been paid on time ever since.  If ADEC fixes my family’s flight allowance for this summer, I can’t complain.

Flexible Pricing and Cheap Translation

Flexible pricing is one of the odd things to be aware of here in Abu Dhabi.  Even big, shiny, reputable looking companies do it.  Case in point: the company that we were recommended (Let’s call them IfS; the name has been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike). They don’t have prices for some of their services posted anywhere. I have, like several others, paid 110 dirhams per document for translation services. I also paid 200 dirhams to have my marriage certificate attested. Yesterday I left my driver’s license with them to get it interpreted, again paying 110 dirhams, which is what I paid for the marriage certificate translation.

I have since discovered that there are also several people who got things translated for 60 dirhams and attested for 150 by the very same folks in the very same establishment. That’s a considerable difference in pricing, with no difference in service or explanation for the discrepancy.

IfS is also not the most affordable place around (at least not when they decide to charge folks the higher prices). There is talk about a place on Hamdan Street behind the Etisalat building (that would be the one with the golf ball on top, if you know AD) which translates for 75 dirhams per document. Other folks tell about getting a quantity discount because they went in a group. A reliable source tells me that the driver’s license facility actually will translate it while you wait for 60 dirhams.


Here’s the moral of the story, kids: ask around about pricing for services, and insist on the lower prices if you hear of a place which, like IfS, has flexible pricing. Sadly for me, I didn’t know that other folks were having things done more cheaply until I’d already paid up front for the service.

As a sort of footnote, don’t underestimate the helpfulness of the hotel concierge, either. The concierge can give advice on a wide range of things. It’s very possible that the concierge could have recommended a place that would be reliable and more affordable for these services. One of my colleagues got a laptop fixed very cheaply because the concierge steered him in the best direction.

When it comes down to it, the 420 dirhams ($114.50) that I’ve paid for having my license translated and marriage certificate both attested and interpreted isn’t just totally outrageous. I mean, Jenia is worth that much to me and then some, and I’ve got to have this stuff done in order to get her here. But if you make this journey, bear my words in mind, because you might save some hard-earned cash if you are a bit more savvy than me.